Science and Religion

The Scientific Method & Faith-Based Worldview


Salman Ahmed Shaikh

In simple words, science is knowledge established by observation and experimentation through an objective process. Science tries to disentangle useful knowledge about the matter so that this knowledge can be put to effective use. For the physical world, this effective use encompasses understanding the nature of physical phenomena and using that understanding in applications of matter in developing and advancing technology.

As far as understanding the properties of matter is concerned with the objective of making our lives useful, religion does not oppose science at all. There is no inherent conflict between science and religion if the scope of both science and faith are duly understood and acknowledged. Faith based worldview does not oppose the use of various tools for obtaining useful knowledge and then using that knowledge for material ends both at an individual and at the societal level.

When one reads Qur’an, Allah is again and again inviting people to ponder over their creation, environment, ecology, design, variety and balance in the organization of matter in the universe in order to decipher the meaning of life amidst all these manifestations.

There is no restriction on planning or in using material resources provided to us by the Creator. In fact, Islam disapproves monasticism, encourages economic pursuits and asks us to choose the easier of available alternatives to provide comfort in our lives as well as for others. Both the intellect and the matter to which we apply our intellect are created by Allah.

The question of ‘why we exist’ is the focus of religion. The question of ‘what exists and how’ is the focus of science. The drive for mutual help, engendering compassion, respecting biodiversity, intergenerational resource equity and sustainability requires upholding values which are strengthened by religion.

Prof. Lawrence Krauss explained that “’Why’ implicitly suggests purpose, and when we try to understand the solar system in scientific terms, we do not generally ascribe purpose to it.” The conflict between science and religion appears when a descriptive falsifiable scientific theory is presented as a substitute and evidence to support a godless philosophy of life. Theory of evolution attempts to describe the process through which life comes to exist in different varieties. All this theory can support is that different forms of complex life did not come to exist all of a sudden and at the same time. It merely identifies and explains intermediate steps in the long chain of events. The theory does not concern with the question of the meaning of life itself.

Prof. Karl Popper writes:

“The belief that we can start with pure observation alone, without anything in the nature of a theory is absurd. Observation is always selective. It needs a chosen object, a definite task, an interest, a point of view, a problem. And its description presupposes a descriptive language, with property words; it presupposes similarity and classification, which in their turn presuppose interests, points of view, and problems.1

Furthermore, Prof. Norman Campbell in his book ‘What is Science’ writes that since science always excludes from its scope conclusions which cannot be proved without differences, it can only help in deciding material means for material ends. Scientific preference for a means is only with regards to scientific effectiveness. Ranking the alternative means does not imply their absolute preference for employment in practical decision making. This logical conclusion can only be reached when the end objective can be proved to be preferable. To provide proof for an end objective to be preferable over others is beyond science.

The real and fruitful jurisdiction of science is to understand the matter for its effective use by developing working and functional hypotheses, testing them and refining them to achieve this objective. Prof. Stephen Hawking explains:

“Any physical theory is always provisional, in the sense that it is only a hypothesis: you can never prove it. No matter how many times the results of experiments agree with some theory, you can never be sure that the next time the result will not contradict the theory.2

Prof. Karl Popper in his book ‘The Logic of Scientific Discovery’ wrote: “The game of science is, in principle is without end. He, who decides one day that scientific statements do not call for any further test, and that they can be regarded as finally verified, retires from the game.3He further writes that: “Our aim as scientists is objective truth; more truth, more interesting truth, more intelligible truth. We cannot reasonably aim at certainty. Once we realize that human knowledge is fallible, we realize also that we can never be completely certain that we have not made a mistake.4

In explaining this important point, Prof. Karl Popper gives an analogy. He writes:

“What we aim at is truth: we test our theories in the hope of eliminating those which are not true. In this way we may succeed in improving our theories–even as instruments: in making nets which are better and better adapted to catch our fish, the real world. Yet they will never be perfect instruments for this purpose. They are rational nets of our own making, and should not be mistaken for a complete representation of the real world in all its aspects; not even if they are highly successful; not even if they appear to yield excellent approximations to reality.5

Norman Campbell in his book “What is Science” writes that at no time, can it be claimed that science has reached the final and conclusive stage of reality in the analysis. This is not even claimed in most contemporary sciences. It is accepted that for any law, which seems plausible currently, it is still possible that the causal relation it explains is subject to change in future. He further writes that there certainly are problems and even practical ones where science cannot help us decide one way or the other. In serving people’s needs, one of the biggest hurdles is that these limitations of science are not well understood. When sometimes science has been undermined or overlooked, it has happened because the scope of science has been unduly broadened to areas where it does not belong to and this has caused damage to the cause of science6.

Albert Einstein in his essay ‘Religion and Science: Irreconcilable?’ writes: “The function of setting up goals and passing statements of value transcends its domain7. He further writes: “The independent and fundamental definitions regarding goals and values remain beyond science’s reach.” Also, Norman Campbell in his book ‘What is Science’ states that like all bodies of knowledge, science has its limits and there are some external problems, whose nature is such that science cannot help in resolving them. This should never be overlooked. Despite helping us to understand the external world, science cannot give us even a clue as for what end we should use a particular force or energy8.

Science cannot generate a ‘worldview’. Huston Smith contends in his book “Beyond the Postmodern Mind”: “world implies whole and science deals with part, an identifiable part of the whole that can be shown to be part only9. Scientific knowledge is a special kind of knowledge, precise in its details but extremely restricted in its scope. The boundaries of science are drawn by itself. It is an enterprise limited to the quantitative study of the physical world. In this undertaking, natural sciences excel and show great prowess. Science becomes scientism and turns into poor philosophy when these boundaries are obliterated.

A descriptive theory might or might not adequately describe the physical process, but if it transcends boundaries of physical explanations and starts giving philosophical meaning of the reality,

then the latter endeavour is not within the scope of science. Theory of evolution might be an admissible scientific explanation of the physical process if the evidence supports it, but the Darwinian view of life beyond biology and into social organization is a philosophical conjecture.

Evolutionary biologist Kenneth Miller has argued that when scientists make claims on science and theism or atheism, they are not arguing scientifically at all and are stepping beyond the scope of science into discourses of meaning and purpose. What he finds particularly odd and unjustified is in how atheists often come to invoke scientific authority on their non-scientific philosophical conclusions like there being no point or no meaning to the universe as the only viable option when the scientific method and science never have had any way of addressing questions of meaning or lack of meaning, or the existence or non-existence of God in the first place10.

The Creator in faith’s perspective is the source of all physical and non-physical stuff and the laws which govern matter and the physical processes which convert matter into different inorganic and organic forms. He gave consciousness to human beings like He gave to all living things. We may have evolved into the specie we are. Like other living beings, our bodies are made up of matter that exists in the universe. Our biological body is a chemical composition. Faith essentially addresses not our chemical composition of bodies, but our personality and consciousness. Soul is embodied in our skull. Our physical body is made up of chemicals. Body is just the host of our soul. Animals also have bodies and some have similar chemical composition as ours in some respects.

But, our soul is given the innate and strong ability to differentiate right from wrong actions. We have likeness for and the wish to see fairness, justice, honesty, truthfulness and cooperation in the universe where species survive on survival instincts. These values reflect in our art, prose and poetry. If the feelings, emotions, aesthetics, values and morality are merely a chemical mixture, then our labs shall be producing Shakespeare, Rumi, Iqbal and Picasso just through chemistry experiments without any human intervention, instruction and programming.

Prof. Richard Dawkins says that he is passionate follower of Darwinian evolution, but not in favour of Darwinian view of organizing human life. Prof. Richard Dawkins sums up the Darwinian view of life as follows:

“In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.11

Elisabet Sahtouris in her address at International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies in Malaysia stated:

“Western secular scientific cosmology gave us a creation story in which you have a non-living universe starting with a big bang running down forever afterwards through entropy and then life evolving as an endless uphill struggle against this entropic destruction in which you have to compete to succeed. Unfortunately, eventually, the whole universe washes away because entropy overpowers life. Now to me, that is the most depressing creation story that any culture has ever told. There is no life in it except a losing battle in competition.12

Having conscience, we despise unfairness, injustice, unkind behaviour, lies, and dishonesty. The life does not seem to be fair. Sometimes, people with bad morals and actions survive, thrive and claim resources, power and fame. In contrast, people with honesty and upright character often struggle, underachieve and remain under-rewarded. Injustice happens to people and even entire nations. If we go by the morals of evolution, it should not bother us if there is extinction of species. However, our soul, which is our true identity, does not remain indifferent to harm, injury, destruction, injustice and unkindness.

Daniel Dennett writes: “Human consciousness is just about the last surviving mystery13. Prof. Michio Kaku giving his remarks, states: “There are about 20,000 papers on consciousness with no consensus. Nowhere in history, have so many people devoted so much time to produce so little.14” Not only consciousness, but why the physical processes have led to us having consciousness in the first place is beyond explanation through science or scientific method. Some scientists try to skip or assume this question away by denying consciousness.

Faith speaks to the soul and asks us to purify our soul. When faith gives guidelines about body, it is to make sure that the body hosting the soul should become pure by cleanliness and by being non- injurious to others. Even if we have evolved through a physical process to get our current physical form, it does not matter in the faith based worldview since the faith based worldview attributes every creature’s origin and creation to the Ultimate Creator. But, we humans in our current form and nature have been given a strong ability to differentiate right from wrong actions. This ability is not within our chemical composition. We might be having same colonies of bacteria and cells like other animals. This is the chemical description of our body, i.e. the host which embodies the human soul and spirit. The ability to differentiate right from wrong is in our conscience. We like to act in ways that are essentially good and virtuous and dislike acts which are wrong and unjust. Yet, this world is not fair. Belief in afterlife accountability actualizes the cause and effect in moral matters. It will give deterministic results to every act of goodness and every act of evil. That makes life meaningful and purposeful. That enables us to look beyond our survival instincts in organizing life on the basis of moral values of justice, fairness, honesty, sacrifice and cooperation.

Corona Virus has once again reminded us that the world at the level of viruses and bacteria may operate on survival instincts alone where survival of the fittest is the only moral code. Human body structure might have evolved to be in the present form, but the Ultimate Creator has given us the human soul and spirit which has consciousness like animals, but also has conscience. To focus attention on consciousness alone is to live with survival instincts and ignore higher morals. To act on goodness suggested by conscience requires looking beyond animal instincts and embrace goodness as a habit and wilful choice. Accountability in life hereafter urges that and promises cause and effect in moral matters.

The medical cure for Corona Virus can be sought keeping in view the viral behaviour in bio-chemistry. But, the cure for purifying human soul lies in looking beyond viral, bacterial, cellular and animal behaviour and paying attention to goodness in behaviour urged by the conscience in human soul.

In the Godless worldview, the battle of survival ends with destruction eventually for Corona Virus, bacteria, other unicellular organisms and multi-cellular organisms like animals and humans the same way. Humans having consciousness and conscience may define their personal meaning of life by themselves as to how best to spend few million breaths under the sun in maximizing self-pleasure. But, the life ends without due justice for many people who are killed, robbed and discriminated against and it ends without due punishment for many people who cause these crimes. Some are lucky and some are unlucky in the mortal combat of survival of the fittest.

Belief in single origin of life from the Ultimate Creator brings humility that we are one of many creations in the universe and should not be proud as all creatures have single source of origin, no matter howsoever they differ in the chemical composition of their bodies and respective strengths. Faith based worldview explains how and why humans are different from other species in their strong sense of morality. It urges them to be thankful to their Creator and shun any pride because they too belong to the same Creator. It informs them that their free will allows them to choose the right and wrong paths in life. After they die, they will be held accountable for the use of free will in choosing goodness over evil, ethical over unethical and fair over unfair acts. It will provide them the chance to earn eternal blessing if they choose the righteous behaviour. Else, they will be held accountable if they choose evil over goodness, unethical over ethical and unfair over fair acts. Not only this worldview makes life meaningful, but fulfils the aspiration of seeing absolute justice not just for oneself, but for everyone.

Author of the book ‘Selfish Gene’, Prof. Richard Dawkins once said that evolution is the biggest show on earth. We learn the characters in the show and their respective evolving roles, but forget who is running the show and the purpose of that show. We are all part of the show as well at some point. Some episodes of the show are missing. Initial pages are muted. There are no living characters, but just description of details of the environment in the scene. One by one, characters start appearing. To get to know these other characters and their physical attributes does not make us the Producer and Director of that show.

Some of the evolutionary biologists who do not believe in any God review the previous episodes of the show by literally reading the plot line by line, but miss some important scenes that define the whole plot. They also miss the point that the writer does not start any story by introducing himself explicitly. He only introduces his characters and then makes them play out their roles. What these scientists are quoting from the plot is not necessarily wrong. Perhaps they are quoting exactly the pages of the plot they like and read again and again. But, why the show is happening in the first place? Who is running it? What is the role of human characters in this show? We can only learn from the Producer and Director of the show. He has spoken to us through some of his characters as messengers. The important details of such correspondence are all available inside the plot through the lives and documented dialogues of those messengers. But, the eyes of some people just focus on what they want to see. They have the remote to go to where they can find sensible answers to the entire plot. But, they do not want to see those details. They like the scenes where everyone plays their role in predictable ways day after day. It allows them to make predictions about future episodes. They forget those are just selected scenes of the plot, but not the entire plot. But, their refusal to pay attention to the whole plot would not change the plot. Eventually when the show is over, the ending would not be what they want or what any of the characters in the show want, but what the Producer and Director of that show wants.

Human characters in the show are given more leverage by the Producer and Director to play out their roles in the way they want. Some humans miscalculate this freedom, its limits and their own potential. They use the delegated authority to forget, disregard, downplay, undermine and even get rid of the Producer and Director. Some other non-living and apparently weaker and smaller characters are sometimes used by the Director to remind humans to be humble, have humility and paint their legacy among the good characters in the show. It is up to humans to paint their destiny. If they follow the Director’s guidelines, they can be signed for an even greater show which will begin for never ending again and which will give righteous people with virtuous behaviour the chance to play out their roles without any grief, sorrow and limits.

Sometimes, question is raised that what is the purpose of the universe and other species. Why there was a wait for billions of years before humans began to exist in the universe. What is the purpose of millions of other life-forms in animals and plants? Why there is no life on other planets?

First of all, time is a relative concept. Thus, human’s conception of time on planet earth is just how we experience movement of earth around sun and about its own axis. Venus and Mercury take longer time to fully rotate about their axis than to complete their orbits around sun. This means Venus and Mercury have days that last longer than their years, i.e. orbiting around sun is faster which determines years and rotation around their axis is slower which determines days.

Second, other life-forms exist and have consciousness. Their lives give us a lot of food for nutrition and food for thought. We get food for our physical needs from plants, trees and farm animals. We are able to use some animals for our safety and travel. Even the microorganisms are important in decomposing waste and are a source of medicines and vaccines. In a way, these life-forms support our sustenance. Humans as consumers depend on nature for their sustenance more so than the plants which produce their own food and supply nutrients for other animals including humans.

We also get food for thought if we look at these life-forms. Reflecting on animals, we can see that they have limitations. They live on instincts and do not have ability to look into distant past and far future. They operate on survival instincts. Should humans be like that and only pay attention to survival and animal instincts? We know from our own introspection that we have a clear and strong moral conscience and free will to choose goodness and evil in our choices. Not only do we have that power of recognition, but a strong urge to see goodness, fairness and justice prevail in society. We never like to be cheated and be dealt unfairly. Even those who act in bad ways, they also recognize the evil acts as bad. Belief in afterlife accountability as included in monotheistic faith solves the puzzle by giving deterministic results for choices done with free will. It completes the cause and effect relation in moral matters. Steven Weinberg once remarked that looking at cosmos; one gets the impression that it is pointless15. However, religious worldview makes life of every human being meaningful and purposive with promise of deterministic justice in the life to come.

On the other hand, matter without any apparent life, i.e. abiotic matter, also supports our sustenance. Without Jupiter and Saturn orbiting out past Earth, life may not have been able to gain a foothold on our planet. The two gas giants likely helped stabilize the solar system, protecting Earth and the other interior, rocky planets from frequent run-ins with big, fast-moving objects16. Sun and moon give us light and their pre-determined movements make our days and night liveable in terms of length and temperature. Due to the Sun and Moon’s gravitational pull, we have tides. Seas and rivers give us food and water. Likewise, forests, life in forests, mountains and bio-diversity together provide the ecological balance which helps in sustaining life.

As humans, when we look into our inner self, we find that we also have survival instincts like animals. But, we also have conscience to differentiate right from wrong. Our brains have memories, emotions and intellect to go beyond physical reality and find answers. Our aesthetic sense likes beauty, art, culture and nature. We also have the ability to use matter for our convenience in making objects bigger and powerful than us so as to make us transcend our physical limits. Science has facilitated us to use matter in useful ways. However, as stated before, we also have conscience. We have inherent morals and values. Religion speaks to our soul and asks us to purify our inner soul as well as ensure that our physical self is also pure, clean and peaceful while engaging with our outer environment where we meet people and nature.

A human child requires nourishment and care to sustain itself. This experience of being dependent for our survival needs gives us a chance to not forget our fallibility and weaknesses despite our strengths and superior ability in youth. Sometimes, a virus creates havoc in our routine life. It makes us understand that despite having consciousness, superior intellect and accumulated knowledge passed over from generations to generations, we are still fallible and vulnerable. We are not God nor can we be. Pandemics and natural calamities invite us to ponder that if life is going to end from one reason or the other, then what is the purpose and meaning of life. If we have been created by the Ultimate Creator, then what is the purpose defined for our lives. The purpose of life defined by religion is not constraining when we look at life in far future. We have this ability to reflect on the far future. Good morals and virtuous lives using our free will can enable us to achieve what we want to achieve in this world without success, i.e. everlasting life, peace of mind, no regrets of past, no vulnerabilities and no constraints of nature. It is up to us whether we look into the far future for which we have the ability or succumb to our survival instincts and perish as another life-form.

The aversion to science emanates from misplacing the scope of both religion and science in society. The disservice to promoting science comes from scientists who mix their personal views with science. One well known Physics Professor in Pakistan wrote: “If Muslim societies are to develop technology instead of just using it, the ruthlessly competitive global marketplace will insist on not only high skill levels but also intense social work habits. The latter are not easily reconcilable with religious demands made on a fully observant Muslim’s time, energy, and mental concentration: The faithful must participate in five daily congregational prayers, endure a month of fasting that taxes the body, recite daily from the Qur’an, and more.17

Neil Turok, director of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo recently remarked “All of the theoretical work that’s been done since the 1970s has not produced a single successful prediction”. Several major and significant discoveries in science occurred in the 19th and 20th century through the works of scientists who believed in God. Even in just the last 500 years of modern scientific enterprise, a great many scientists were religious including names like Isaac Newton, Nicholas Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, Robert Boyle, William Thomson Kelvin, Michael Faraday, James Clerk Maxwell, Louis Pasteur and Nobel Laureate scientists like:

  1. Max Planck
  2. Guglielmo Marconi
  3. Robert A. Milikan
  4. Erwin Schrodinger
  5. Arthur Compton
  6. Isidor Isaac Rabi
  7. Max Born
  8. Dererk Barton
  9. Nevill F. Mott
  10. Charles H. Townes
  11. Christian B. Anfinsen
  12. John Eccles
  13. Ernst B. Chain
  14. Antony Hewish
  15. Daniel Nathans
  16. Abdus Salam
  17. Joseph Murray
  18. Joseph H. Taylor
  19. William D. Phillips
  20. Walter Kohn
  21. Ahmed Zewail
  22. Aziz Sancar
  23. Gerhard Etrl

Thus, it is important for the torchbearers of science to know their scope and highlight what they can offer to society in terms of curing diseases, improving food production and easing transport and communication systems, for instance. To mock faith and faithful, the scientists who do not believe in God do not just hurt the faithful people who are non-scientists, but a great many of their own colleagues who are scientists, but not atheists.

References

  1. Popper, K. (2014). “Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge”. New York: Routledge.
  1. Hawking, S. W. (1996). “The Illustrated: A Brief History of Time”. London: Bantam Books.
  1. Popper, K. (2002). “The Logic of Scientific Discovery”. New York: Routledge.
  1. Popper, K. (2012). “In Search of a Better World: Lectures and Essays from Thirty Years”. New York: Routledge.
  1. Popper, K. (1982). “The Open Universe: An Argument for Indeterminism from the Postscript to the Logic of Scientific Discovery”. New York: Routledge.
  1. Pigliucci, M. (2013). “New Atheism and the Scientistic Turn in the Atheism Movement”, Midwest Studies in Philosophy, y, 37, 151–152.
  1. Einstein, A. (1948). “Religion and Science: Irreconcilable?”, A response to a greeting sent by the Liberal Ministers’ Club of New York City. Published in The Christian Register, June, 1948.
  1. Campbell, N. R. (1952). “What is Science?”. New York: Dover Publications.
  1. Smith, H. (2003). “Beyond the Postmodern Mind: The Place of Meaning in a Global Civilization”, Wheaton: Quest Books.
  1. Miller, K. R. (1999). “Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground between God and Evolution”. New York: Harper Perennial.
  1. Dawkins, R. (1996) “River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life”, UK: Basic Books.
  1. Sahtouris, E. (2013). “Science and Spirituality in the Twenty First Century”, Occasional Paper Series No. 6. Kuala Lumpur: International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies in Malaysia.
  1. Dennett, D. C. (1991). “Consciousness Explained”. New York: Little, Brown and Co.
  1. Kaku, M. (2014). “Forecasting The ‘Future’ By Tapping Into Human Consciousness”, Interview by Host Arun Rath for NPR on February 22, 2014.
  1. Weinberg, S. (1993). “Dreams of a Final Theory: The Search for the Fundamental Laws of Nature”, New York: Random House.
  1. Lewin, S. (2016). “Life on Earth Can Thank Its Lucky Stars for Jupiter and Saturn”. http://www.space.com, January 12, 2016.
  1. Hoodhbhoy, P. A. (2007). “Science and the Islamic World – The Quest for Rapprochement” (Physics Today, 2007).

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